Thursday, February 23, 2012

Washington casts a long shadow... Do you?

The US celebrated President's Day this week with the usual patriotic events – giant sales at the malls. If you were out in the crush of traffic or just enjoying a day off from work it was easy to forget the holiday put together former February birthday celebrations for Presidents Abe Lincoln and George Washington. Today the holiday has become a generic occasion to honor all the US presidents…including the ubiquitous Abe and George ads hawking flat screen TVs and the latest fashions.

About once a decade, C-SPAN conducts a survey amonghistorians and presidential experts and ranks all the presidents. The 2009 survey findings are relevant and interesting for anyone anywhere who is a leader. Scholars use these leadership traits to rank the presidents:
  • Public Persuasion
  • Crisis Leadership
  • Economic Management
  • Moral Authority
  • International Relations
  • Administrative Skills
  • Relations with Congress
  • Vision/Setting An Agenda
  • Pursued Equal Justice For All
  • Performance Within Context of Times
Moving from the political to the organizational realm, you might want to exchange Relations with Congress for something like Relations with Stakeholders and you might want to add some other topics. For the most part, these are a good list of critical leadership traits.

How would you stack up? 

Would you be able to come close to the sort of scores George Washington racks up survey after survey? Washington's stature has grown and shrunk over the years. In his own time he was worshiped and vilified. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin commented recently that she would find it difficult to really get to know him and he has certainly eluded most biographers.

Yet Washington was a personification of the American dream of the self-made man. As a teenager he began jotting down advice about how to conduct himself. He did not have the formal education of many of the other founders and often felt he lacked their polish with language. He engaged Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as ghost writers to turn his thoughts into the acceptable style of the day.

Yet, when army officers threatened rebellion in the 1783 Newburgh Conspiracy, he was eloquent enough on his own. Richard Norton Smith describes it this way…

None of this had much effect until the general retrieved from his pocket a congressional message promising early redress of legitimate complaints. He fumbled with the paper for a few seconds, then reached again into his coat to fetch a pair of eyeglasses. Begging the indulgence of his men, he explained to a stunned audience, "I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind." Instantly, rebellion melted into tears.

Examine the areas where Washington rated number 1 with the scholars:
Economic Management
Moral Authority
International Relations
Administrative Skills
Are any of these areas where you excel? The international relations category may not be germane if your organization is not working globally. However, the other three are critical for any successful leader whom we would want to follow.

Economic management: Whether for-profit or not, in today’s economic climate, you must manage the finances of the organization prudently. You must invest in areas that will help you continue to grow and develop while eliminating inefficiency and eliminating unnecessary expenses.

Moral Authority: This is the essence of the Leader’s shadow. Who are you as a person? Do you perform with integrity? Are you trustworthy? Reliable? Do you care about people? Do you inspire people to be their best selves?

Administrative Skills: Can you manage people, processes, and priorities? Do you delegate, motivate, and coach people? Do you turn vision and mission into reality? Do you create a working environment where employees are fully engaged?

I suggest you spend a little time looking through the lists and see where your favorites (and not so favorites) score on each of the issues. Try to remove your ideological and political blinders and consider each president in his leadership role. No matter what country you call home, these attributes make a good checklist for leadership. What can you learn from them? How would your employees or peers rate you?

What shadow are you casting?

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© Rebecca Staton-Reinstein and Advantage Leadership, Inc.

(note: quote from Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Richard Norton Smith. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.)

I NEED YOUR HELP: I'm beginning research for my new book on the influence of leaders on their organizations (Washington's Shadow) and I'm interested in your experiences or ideas for case studies. Drop me a note:  

Learn more about Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers (  and visit our Author Page on Amazon. ( )

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Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, Ph.D., President
Advantage Leadership, Inc.
1835 NE Miami Gardens Drive, Suite 152
North Miami Beach, FL 33179

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